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Everything You Need to Know to Start Playing ‘Magic: The Gathering’

Denny Watkins
As part of Core 2021, Magic: The Gathering is also releasing five new complete, ready-to-play decks.

Magic: The Gathering is the original collectable card game. Players represent two duelling wizards who summon a growing army, represented by detailed playing cards with evocative fantasy art, to fight for them on the battlefield. With 20 million players worldwide according to its maker, Wizards of the Coast, it’s incredibly popular with more players joining all the time.

Although Magic: The Gathering has nearly 20,000 cards printed, playing the game needn’t be a daunting prospect. It’s actually simple to learn, and we’ll teach you how in the next few paragraphs. Those thousands of cards, with new sets released several times a year, mean the game is full of endless possibilities, and it’s always evolving. The secret to Magic: The Gathering is that it’s fun the first time you play, and the more you come back, the more the game’s complexity opens up to you.

In fact, the newest Magic: The Gathering release, Core 2021, is an ideal entry point. The annual core sets feature both powerful cards and straightforward, evergreen mechanics that make up the heart of the game.

As part of Core 2021, Magic: The Gathering is also releasing five new complete, ready-to-play decks, each built around a powerful planeswalker card in one of the game’s five signature colours, which gives the decks a unique playstyle. White is the colour of defence and healing, blue is the colour of knowledge (often taking the form of extra card draw), black is the colour of destruction, red is the colour of speed and aggression, and green is the colour of growth. You can grab one of these preconstructed decks with the playstyle that speaks to you, open it up, and start playing right away.

The Basics

Ready to learn? Let’s start with the basics. You start with 20 life points. Certain spells and effects let you gain life during the game — there’s no upper limit — but if you drop to zero life, you lose the game.

Your deck has to contain at least 60 cards (most decks, with some notable exceptions, are exactly 60 cards). You can only have up to four copies of any card in your deck, except for basic lands. Between 22 and 26 of those cards (roughly two-fifths of your deck) will be lands, which generate mana: planes for white mana, islands for blue, swamps for black, mountains for red, and forests for green. (With the preconstructed decks, all this planning is already set up for you.)

Planeswalkers are some of the most powerful cards in Magic: The Gathering, each with several abilities that you can activate once per turn.

Mana is Magic: The Gathering’s in-game currency, as your wizard draws power from the natural world to fuel their magic. You pay that mana when you want to cast a spell to summon a creature or to activate special abilities those creatures have. There are dozens of creature types, drawn from a wide range of fantasy, literature, and the game designers’ own imagination. To support your creatures, you can also summon artifacts and enchantments, which have their own abilities but can’t attack or defend, or you can cast instant and sorcery spells that have one-time or temporary effects. Planeswalkers are some of the most powerful cards in Magic: The Gathering, each with several abilities that you can activate once per turn. At the beginning of your next turn, all your mana sources that survived will refresh, letting you play more spells and add to your mana base. As the game goes on, more and bigger threats will enter the board.

Starting a Game

Roll a dice or flip a coin to see who plays first. Then you both draw seven cards. Each player’s turn begins with them drawing a card, except for the first player on their first turn, who skips that draw step once to balance out the advantage of going first.

During the main phases (there’s one after your draw step and a second main phase after combat) you can play one land per turn, and you can cast your spells. Creatures have summoning sickness after they are cast, which means they can’t do anything but block until your next turn. Unless a creature provides some effect that you’ll need before you attack — giving all your creatures +1 to power, for example — wait to play the card until after combat so your opponent knows less about your plan for next turn.

When you move to combat in the next phase, your summoned goblins, dragons, and knights square off against your opponent’s zombies, vampires, and zombie vampires. Each one has a power rating, which is how much damage they deal out, and toughness, which is how much they can absorb before they die.

Begin the Duel

Declare which creatures attack by turning the card sideways (or ‘tap’). Creatures you tap won’t be able to block the next turn. Your opponent can then block each of your attacking creatures with one or more of their own untapped creatures. If the power of a blocking or attacking creature is more than the other’s toughness, it dies and is sent to the graveyard (your discard pile). Unblocked attacking damage reduces the opponent’s life total.

“Every card allows you to break rules at some point.” – Richard Garfield, Magic: The Gathering creator

Mid-attack might also be the perfect time to surprise your opponent with an instant spell that gives your creatures an added boost or foils your opponent’s blocks. In fact, you can play an instant spell during any phase (except untap), and you can play instants on your opponent’s turn in response to their spells. You can also activate abilities of creatures, artifacts, and enchantments any time you could cast an instant spell.

After combat, you enter your second main phase where you can cast more spells and play a land if you haven’t already. The last phase is your end step. If you managed to draw enough cards that you’re left with more than seven in your hand, you have to discard down to seven cards before you can end the turn. Then the turn passes to the next player. At the beginning of your next turn, all your cards untap and you draw a card to start again.

Those are the essential rules of the game, but as Richard Garfield, the creator of Magic: The Gathering, said in an interview, “Every card allows you to break rules at some point.” A creature with vigilance, for example, doesn’t have to tap to attack, so it can still block on your opponent’s turn. Creatures with flying soar over defenders, which in game terms means they can’t be blocked except by other creatures with flying. Other creatures have their own unique rules, like the new Rambunctious Mutt, which destroys one of your opponent’s artifacts or enchantments just by entering the game. Read your cards carefully, and use their abilities when they would make the most impact.

Most games of Magic: The Gathering take between 10 and 30 minutes to play out. If you don’t win on your first try, shuffle up and play again. Even the strongest decks in Magic: The Gathering win just over half their matches, so whether or not you emerge victoriously ultimately depends on your individual skill and a little bit of luck. The more you play, the faster your playing skills will improve.

If you’re thinking of starting out with Magic, Core 2021 provides the perfect starting point for you to jump in. Can’t wait? You can download MTG Arena, Magic’s digital version for free here.

Denny Watkins
Denny Watkins has written for Vice, Scientific American, Syfy Wire, Health, Details, Maxim, Men's Health, Women's Health, Wine Enthusiast, and Chicago Athlete. He is a nerd.